As tensions in Russia intensify, civilians flood in to defend Ukraine

Wearing a pink ski jacket and dark blue jeans, Olga Salo arrived in a cold pine forest on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kiev to participate in her first tactical military training exercise.

On a cold Saturday in December, when most parts of the world were celebrating Christmas, the 39-year-old museum guide lined up with hundreds of other civilians who volunteered to defend the Ukrainian base camp, just in case. Russian invasion.

Both prospective recruits and recruits received wooden replica weapons. The more experienced recruits and reserve personnel, many in camouflage uniforms, carry automatic rifles.

“It is necessary to prepare for the worst and react appropriately,” Salo said. “If we are ready, maybe it won’t happen. I think if the enemy knows that here will be resisted not only by the regular army, but also by the people, he will not attack.”

There are reports that Russia has assembled 100,000 soldiers along its border with Ukraine, sparking fears that Moscow is preparing to invade, leading to escalation of tensions and an influx of volunteers. As part of a tense diplomatic effort to ease the crisis, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Phone conversation Thursday, before further negotiations in January between Washington, Moscow and the NATO powers.

Although Putin previously denied any invasion plans, he said last week that if Ukraine and its Western supporters ignore Moscow’s “red line”, he is prepared to use “appropriate military technical measures” and “respond severely to hostile steps”. These include freezing further Western military assistance to Ukraine, denying Kiev’s application to join NATO, and withdrawing troops from the military alliance from Eastern Europe.

Salo participated in one of the weekly regular exercises organized by the National Defense Forces of the Ukrainian Territory, a branch of the country’s regular army established a few years ago to train hundreds of thousands of part-time reserve personnel to play a supporting role in the event of a war.

This year’s exercise is open to new recruits, and more and more ordinary citizens are calling for training and the possibility of joining TDF through advertisements and social media across the country.

Olga Salo wears a pink ski jacket and trains with other civilians and Ukrainian army reserve personnel © Roman Olearchyk/FT

A survey conducted by the Kiev Institute of International Sociology in December last year found that in a country with a population of 44 million, 58% of men and nearly 13% of women are ready to take up arms to defend the country from the Russian army. Approximately 17% of men and 25.5% of women are prepared to fight back in other ways, including protests and subversive activities.

“No one will greet them with flowers here… they are greeted by bullets,” Ukraine’s national security chief Oleksi Danilov told the Financial Times. “There will be full resistance.”

Ukraine’s regular army far exceeds Russia’s 1 million army in number and firepower. There are approximately 250,000 soldiers in the country, many of whom are fighting separatists supported by Russia in the Donbass region of the Far East. When the conflict broke out shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Ukrainian army was caught off guard by its poor equipment and reluctance to shoot.


Thousands of tattered volunteer fighters-including dozens of known Football hooligans -Played a key role in the early stages of the war. Nearly eight years later, Ukraine has regrouped in the military and modernized its military with precision weapons including Javelin anti-tank fighters from the United States and UAVs from Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of regular, battle-tested soldiers who have served in the conflict are fully prepared. If they return to service, they will have claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people.

Danilov urged Ukraine’s Western supporters to quickly provide the country’s regular army with more defensive weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to deter invasion.

He said that Russia needs to increase its potential invading force to 500,000 to 600,000 soldiers in order to occupy approximately half of Ukraine.

On Thursday night, Biden told Putin that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States and its allies were prepared to respond “decisively”.

TDF volunteers holding wooden training rifles in the snow
TDF volunteers train on the outskirts of Kiev on December 25. The military plans to build only a 5,000-man territorial defense force in the Ukrainian capital © Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

In the new year, approximately 11,000 new TDF recruits are expected to join the Ukrainian army part-time. An undisclosed figure has been signed to form the core of an expanded force to protect critical infrastructure and factories, carry out special operations, and act as a guerrilla in any new territory occupied by Russia.

Others, including Salo, are training in cities across Ukraine and may join what Danilov calls “tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands” or even “millions of people who are eager to defend our country.”

In addition to TDF, thousands of Ukrainians are being trained by dozens of non-governmental paramilitary organizations. Some people go back to the voluntary combat camp where they first took up arms in 2014.

Back in the pine forest on the outskirts of Kiev, the recruits received hours of training in military basics, including how to use tourniquets to stop bleeding, and the importance of maintaining distance between troops during patrols to reduce casualties in ambushes. There was a loud noise in the distance, and the more advanced team was practicing throwing grenades.

“I feel threatened,” said Vladislav, a 53-year-old car mechanic who signed up a month ago to update the skills he first learned while serving in the Soviet army. “If we have to retreat, we will do everything possible to take the most lives of our enemies.”

Military exercises near Kiev on Christmas Day
It is estimated that around 11,000 new TDF recruits will join the Ukrainian army part-time in early 2022 © Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

One of the instructors said that after a few weekend training sessions, new employees are ready to play basic roles. He said the plan includes the establishment of a 5,000-man territorial defense force in Kiev alone.

“They live here, they are trained here, they understand the family environment, you don’t need to transport them to areas they are not familiar with,” said Andre, an IT industry employee and Army reserve personnel who trains recruits on weekends.

After practicing for several hours in cold temperatures, including rolling in the snow and learning how to aim a rifle, Salo said: “If you stop moving, it will only be cold.”

She said that she is ready to join the TDF force while continuing to serve as a tour guide at the Kiev Museum to commemorate the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, which overthrew pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and hopes to be a role model for her friends.

“The more you register,” she added, “the better we will be protected.”

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